UK privacy watchdog says 'forget me, Google' ruling no threat to free expression

The UK's privacy watchdog challenges Google's view that Europe's top court got the "right to be forgotten" ruling wrong.
Written by Liam Tung, Contributing Writer

Europeans' newfound 'right to be forgotten' by search engines might be hard to implement, but it's not a threat to freedom to expression, says the UK's data protection watchdog.

The Information Commission's Office on Wednesday gave its first detailed response to the European Court of Justice's recent ruling which gave Europeans the right to ask Google to stop providing links to web content that portrays them negatively, if that content is no longer relevant.

While the ruling applies to all EU member states, it's still up to each nation to implement and oversee the law individually. As a first step, individuals will need to file a request with the search engine, which must consider the request. The person can then seek a ruling from the relevant data protection authority if the request is denied.

Google chairman Eric Schmidt has criticised the court for striking the wrong the balance between the right to know and the right to be forgotten, while its chief legal counsel David Drummond said the ruling didn't adequately consider the impact on free expression. Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales went further, calling it "wide-sweeping internet censorship".

David Smith, the UK's ICO's deputy commissioner and director of data protection, cautioned against those claims, noting the ruling doesn't give an "absolute right" to have links removed.

"There are some who are seeking to draw out much wider implications of the judgment for freedom of expression in general. It is important to keep the implications in proportion and recognise that there is no absolute right to have links removed," wrote Smith on the ICO's blog.

Under the ruling, Smith said the "public record of a newspaper may not be deleted even if the link to it from a search website is removed".

Media organisations, bloggers, and publishers can also fall back on section 32 of the UK's Data Protection Act to apply for an exemption for journalism, art, and literature.

And Smith disagreed with Schmidt's view the court erred in its ruling. "We believe the judgment provides space to strike a balance between the right to privacy and the public's right to know, recognising the role search engines play in facilitating access to information in today's society," he wrote.  

While Google has reportedly already faced requests from individuals to be 'forgotten' following the ruling, the ICO will offer search companies "a reasonable time to put their systems in place and start considering requests" before ruling on complaints that come its way. Smith urged search providers to start considering what mechanisms they'll need to deal with removal requests.

When it does begin considering how to implement the ruling, the ICO will focus "on concerns linked to clear evidence of damage and distress to individuals," said Smith.

The privacy regulator for Hamburg in Germany last week told the Wall Street Journal that Google would have a forget-me mechanism in place by the end of May; however, Google said it may take "several weeks".

Starting in June, the ICO will join Europe's Article 29 Working Party to ensure a consistent approach is taken across Europe.

The ICO has published an overview of what the judgement means here.

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